Yankee Oxfords

Importing Oxbridge
December 12, 1997

The institutions that seem to the outsider to epitomise higher education in the United States are rather a small sub-group of the whole. Of 3,500 colleges and universities scattered throughout the country, barely 50 are serious "research universities", and the elite liberal arts colleges of the calibre of Williams, Swarthmore, Amherst and Bryn Mawr are fewer still. Look at the annual rankings of "America's best colleges and Universities" in US News and World Report, and see how quickly you find yourself among second-string universities and old-fashioned little colleges that are closer to finishing schools than to serious academic institutions. They in turn are vastly outnumbered by both private and public institutions that would in this country be firmly counted as further education colleges - and none the worse for it. What does not exist is anything much resembling Oxford and Cambridge.

Alex Duke's engaging, if unsophisticated little book does something to explain why this is so. Several places tried to model themselves on what they conceived Oxbridge to be, but none of them quite brought it off. It is important to see that they generally, perhaps universally, began by not understanding what they were trying to do. The oddity of Oxford and Cambridge is, after all, that they try to be two contradictory things: smallish, liberal education-oriented, undergraduate collegiate institutions on the one hand, and large, departmentally structured, specialised research institutions on the other.

In the US, the Berkeleys and Michigans provide mass education to undergraduates, while they turn on their best efforts for graduates and judge their faculty by their research record. The Amhersts and Swarthmores, in contrast, run no graduate programmes, take their best teachers seriously, and provide some of the best undergraduate education in the world. The one university that tries to be both an unusually large liberal arts college for undergraduates and an unusually small major research university at one and the same time is Princeton. Even Yale, which certainly takes undergraduate teaching absolutely seriously, tempts its faculty away from the undergraduates with a law school, a business school, and a much bigger graduate school.

The Americans who wanted to import Oxbridge in fact wanted to import Oxford. Rather few Americans knew the city that had been responsible for the creation of Harvard in 1636, while rather a lot of them found their way to Matthew Arnold's dreaming spires. Since they commonly came during the vacations, they rarely saw students writing essays and working in tutorials. Their vision was of a timeless community, a place where seniors and juniors mingled easily, and acquired the manners of gentlemen. So taken with Oxford was Woodrow Wilson, then a professor of politics at Princeton, soon to be the president of the university, on his way to higher things, that he wrote home to say that if there had been a job going in Oxford, he would have come home only to pack.

Duke makes the simple but useful point that the perceived history of Oxford - what he sometimes calls the institutional saga of the places he discusses - was quite other than its real, or "noumenal" history. The university that Americans adored was the product of the reforms of the 1850s; the curriculum had been rebuilt in wholesale fashion after 1860. The tutorial fellow was a Victorian creation, and a very good one, but also a very recent one. Indeed, the very idea of an academic career was a novelty.

The perceived history was another matter entirely; according to it, Oxford had been moulding the minds, and more importantly the characters, of English scholars and statesmen since deep into the Middle Ages. It was this, as it happened non-existent, centuries-old tradition that Wilson wanted to import to Princeton, that William Rainey Harper wanted to attach to the new University of Chicago, and that the presidents of Harvard and Yale also hoped might be the answer to the problem of how to secure the virtues of the small, socially homogeneous college within a university that was expanding its intake from 150 a year to something like three or four times that number.

Given the false premises on which they were acting, Lawrence Lowell at Harvard, James Angell at Yale and Wilson at Princeton were certainly not going to achieve what they had hoped for. Nor were they going to recreate Oxford in Cambridge and New Haven, even though they built some passably Gothic buildings. More interestingly, the attempt met with resistance from those who understood the peculiar genius of the American university better than the importers.

The grounds of resistance varied a good deal. At Princeton, it was the defenders of the already established eating clubs who combined with Andrew West, a moderniser who wanted to establish a residential graduate college before all else; they defeated Wilson, who retired in a huff to become governor of New Jersey and subsequently president of the United States. Chicago did not have the money, and initially neither did Harvard. Even when Harkness money enabled Harvard to create its house system and Yale to create its undergraduate colleges, the result was, of course, entirely unlike the model. The instructional programme was separate from what went on in the colleges and houses; senior faculty saw no reason to become tutors; and the students themselves exercised their talent for self-segregation by giving the various houses and colleges a social character that usually varied inversely with the academic interests of their members.

To say it was all a failure misrepresents the matter, however. Duke reminds us that David Riesman observed of the Harvard experiment that it is one thing to recognise that what was created did not meet its creators' hopes, and another to refuse to acknowledge that the colleges and house provided a useful and intelligent way of housing students in congenial company, with faculty close at hand for more informal contact than the classroom and lecture theatre provided.

Indeed, Duke might have heeded his own advice a little better. His rather valedictory treatment of all these efforts is somewhat off-target; he observes that after Wilson's failure at Princeton, nothing more was done to institute a college system, which does little justice to the recent creation of five undergraduate colleges that house all the freshmen and sophomores, and to the ongoing argument about the wisdom or otherwise of extending the system to all four years.

So long as there are institutions which, like Oxford and Cambridge, Yale, Harvard and Princeton and a very few others, try to reconcile the inevitable tensions between undergraduate and graduate teaching, and liberal education and technical research, there will be an argument about what institutional arrangements can best shelter those ambitions. The collegiate university is one answer to that problem.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford, and was formerly professor of politics, Princeton University.

Importing Oxbridge: English Residential Colleges and American Universities

Author - Alex Duke
ISBN - 0 300 06761 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 214

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